by Ellen Sims

text: John 4: 5-42

Since we’re observing Women’s History month, I’d like to approach today’s Gospel text as a story about a first century Nasty Woman who “nevertheless persisted”: a Samaritan woman who, though shunned by the Jews, nevertheless persistently questioned a traveling rabbi and engaged Jesus in the longest and most theologically sophisticated conversation captured in any of the Gospels.

I’d also like to tell this as a story about the tragic enmity between people of different religions—or, more precisely, about the fractious relationships between people whose religions share common roots and are actually so similar that their adherents work especially hard to differentiate to the point that they disparage their sister religion. The Jews and Samaritans did so in Jesus’s day. And some members of the Abrahamic faiths do today. As do some Christians of different flavors.

But two important “churchy” words found both in last Sunday’s story about Nicodemus and today’s story about the Samaritan woman insist we attend to them as we move toward Holy Week.

We’ll start at the very end of today’s story, then work backward to the complex conversation between Jesus and the woman at the well. It’s in the last four verses of our Gospel reading (39-42) where you’ll hear a form of the word “believe” three times.  And then the word “savior.”  Our key words for today: believe, save.

“Many Samaritans from that city believed in [Jesus] because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.” So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.

You’ll also recall that the key verse (John 3:16) from last week’s sermon—an oldie but a goody—proclaimed that “whoever believes in Jesus will be saved.”

Two key verbs: believe and save. Many of us were taught that “believe” is what we must do, and “save” is what God does in response to our belief.  I don’t dispute that believing is our job and saving is God’s.  But I do want to expand what believe and save can mean here. This pair of words emphasized in the story of Nicodemus’s visit to Jesus is found again in today’s story of Jesus’s encounter with the Samaritan woman.

Many Christians believe that the word “believe” involves intellectual assent to some theological statement. To say you believe in Jesus means, some say, that you affirm certain facts about him.  Specifically, many Christians were taught that Jesus “saves” us when we “believe” he died a sacrificial death in our stead and that God raised him from the dead. So if we simply agree that God’s way of saving us from hell is giving Jesus the death penalty for our sins and then resurrecting him afterward, then God will save us from hell and eventually raise us to life eternal. I’m taking pains to offer another example for salvation at work in today’s story. I do so because a belief in a violent God creates violent followers.

So what does it mean to “believe in Jesus” if it’s not about accepting a truth claim that his death allows God to forgive us?

Marcus Borg explained that “the language of ‘believing’ has been part of Christianity from the first century onward. But it didn’t refer primarily to believing the right theological beliefs. It meant something like the English word ‘beloving.’ To believe in God and Jesus was to belove God and Jesus. Namely, it meant to commit one’s self to a relationship of attentiveness and faithfulness. Commitment and fidelity are the ancient meanings of faith and believing.” (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/marcusborg/2013/11/what-is-a-christian/)

Such “belief” saves us. But from what? The biblical meanings of salvation are numerous. God “saves” people collectively from slaughter at the hands of their enemies in Hebrew Bible stories. Many of Jesus’s stories illustrate the meaning of salvation as a physical healing that also was associated with restoration to one’s community.  In contrast, most atonement theologies reduce the meaning of salvation to the idea that Jesus, through his crucifixion, saved individuals from the penalty of hell if they believe certain ideas.

Does that formula for salvation make sense in the context of today’s story of the Samaritans who “believed” and then called Jesus their savior (John 4:42)?  Jesus had not yet been crucified, obviously, and there is nothing in the story to suggest he predicted such a fate or explained such a transaction (his death for their sins) to the Samaritans. How could “believing in Jesus” mean that this group of Samaritans “believed” he died or would die for their sins? Look again at the last 4 verses (39-42) of our Gospel lection.  Here we see the people believed his words. They found something in his teachings to be salvific, bringing them hope and help. What words had he shared with this woman at the well? Jesus spoke nothing at all about a future sacrificial death. What words did he share at that well that could save that Samaritan woman and her people?

It’s time to move to this fascinating conversation, beginning with verse 7. Jesus tells the woman to give him some water. She immediately notes their differences of race, religion, gender–even recognizes their enmity. Jesus responds by implying he can give her something better than literal water: living water. She then acknowledges their common ancestor, Jacob, while implying Jesus can’t be greater than the one for whom the well is named.  Note this movement from acknowledged difference to commonality.

Jesus again speaks of a living water (which can mean literal flowing water, fresh water that is safe to drink, water that is not stagnant—as well as a figurative water, a spirit moving in the world that gushes up with abundance, eternally available). This water is available to her, he says. He reaches out to her.  And she responds.  But not without a hint of sarcasm perhaps: “Yeh. It’d be great if one drink did it and I’d never have to come to this well again.”

Abruptly, Jesus changes tactics and topic: they’re no longer talking theoretically, metaphorically; they’re speaking about her life. “Bring your husband here,” Jesus says. She explains she’s had five husbands and the man in her life now is not her husband. And this is where the conversation pivots. They’ve been direct, honest, perhaps testy with one another. But he’s moving to a more personal level with her—and now she acknowledges his insight.

She boldly asks this Jew, this enemy, a question that exposes the ongoing religious conflict between their people: where is the proper place to worship God: on Mount Zion in Jerusalem or on Mount Gerizim in Samaria?  Jesus said ultimately it doesn’t matter.  The distinctions that religions draw don’t matter to God. God transcends our religious boxes we put God in. Here’s how Eugene Peterson paraphrases Jesus’s response:

“…the time is coming,” Jesus says, “it has, in fact, come—when what you’re called will not matter and where you go to worship will not matter. It’s who you are and the way you live that count before God. Your worship must engage your spirit in the pursuit of truth. That’s the kind of people God is out looking for: those who are simply and honestly themselves before God in their worship. God is sheer being itself–Spirit. Those who worship God must do it out of their very being, their spirits, their true selves, in adoration” (The Message).

She has been honest, direct.  She has heard a saving message. She now runs to tell others in her village:

“Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!”

Yet with some remaining healthy skepticism adds, “He cannot be the Messiah, can he?”

Did Jesus actually tell her everything she’d ever done? No. But she felt “known” and understood and taken seriously.

An authentic, honest encounter—especially with someone you’d considered an enemy or stranger—is powerful. It changes both. We may actually see evidence of Jesus himself evolving as a result of this exchange.  Jesus initially said, “The hour is coming when true worshipers will worship God in spirit and truth”–but corrects himself in mid-sentence to say that “the hour is now here.” It’s as if he sees evidence in this foreign woman that some already see that the worship place is not important; it’s the heart that matters. And the willingness to connect with others.

What some of you have courageously done in our 9:30 class by unpacking the meanings and implications of White Privilege has opened up possibilities for spiritual transformation. Direct questions. Honest exchanges. Vulnerability. Conflict. These lead to new and more authentic relationships. And transformations.

A person or a body of water that is stagnant is not healthy, might even be poisonous. That is why the Spirit of God works in us as a process. God as verb, not noun. God via transformative, deepening relationships. God as a flow, a change, a kind of living or moving water.

Last Sunday we read about the learned Pharisee, Nicodemus, who came to Jesus by night, unwilling for others to know he sought out Jesus. Today we read about the Samaritan woman whom Jesus approached and who stood toe to toe with him to explore a difficult topic and later brought the whole village to the well to see Jesus. Eventually the honest conversation with Jesus allowed her to feel known by someone very different from her. That is powerful. That is healing. That kind of experience can be saving. That is the kind of communication needed in our nation right now. It just might be able to save us.

A recent radio podcast of the program “On Being” described a two-day encounter at Northern Ireland’s oldest peace and reconciliation organization where a self-defined “fundamentalist Christian” declared to the group: “I have a question for all the homosexuals in the room.”

Some bristled at that word. But the man continued earnestly, “I want to know how many times since we’ve met together have my words bruised you.” Some tried to make the man feel better, implying he’d not hurt anyone’s feelings. But the man, to his credit, pushed on and said, “No. Don’t patronize me. How many times have my words bruised you?” Other participants started hemming and hawing. He asked more directly, “Are you telling me that it’s painful for you to be around me?” And a woman in the room finally said, “Yeah, it is.”

Pádraig Ó Tuama, who facilitated the retreat and was the interviewee on “On Being,” reported he could not have gotten very far by asking the man, “Do you realize that your words are bruising?” But the fundamentalist Christian had connected with a gay participant earlier in the retreat around a mutual interest and “was eventually brought into the transformative power of human relationship.” Ó Tuama said it was that common interest “and shared cups of tea . . .  that contributed to” his “conversion.” Ó Tuama said he himself was in turn converted by [the fundamentalist Christian’s unexpected] capacity to ask that humble if awkward question to the group. The facilitator marveled: “I came away just going —I want to be someone like him, who says, “Tell me what it’s like to hear the way I talk because I need to be changed.”

Today’s Gospel story shows us that people on opposite sides of fierce feelings and beliefs can be transformed. The Samaritan woman changed Jesus a bit. And he changed her. And other villagers.

Jesus’s way of engaging others is, I believe, a saving way.

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